Age UK’s report Housing in Later Life makes disturbing reading and sadly comes as no surprise. That only 3% of homes have the recommended accessibility standard for someone with a mobility problem is well known to the many organisations such as Habinteg, campaigning for better housing options for older and disabled people ahead of the next general election.
The positive coverage generated by the report is of course encouraging to see, but we remain concerned that the fundamental need for a basic, mainstream, mandatory accessibility standard in all new developments may still not quite be getting through. It’s no longer about the advantages of accessible homes and neighbourhoods – but the merging of health, housing and social care budgets, as well as the latest demographic predictions for our ageing population make it an absolute necessity.
Yes we need better support services, effective planning for independent living after a hospital spell or life-changing deterioration in health or mobility, as well as more integrated strategies offering housing options to support independent living for older people. Maybe even some provision for specialist accommodation in certain circumstances. But all of these approaches require a minimum accessibility standard in place as the foundation to realising cost-effective, common-sense delivery of services and strategy in the long-term.
Housing needs are specific to each household but one commonality is clear; older people prefer to stay in their own homes. As Age UK has reported, only nominal percentages of older people want to move into specialist retirement housing let alone move home at all – it is a last resort.
Age UK recommends that all new mainstream and specialised housing should comply with higher accessibility standards to reflect the Lifetime Homes Standard. This model means it isn’t necessary to remove people’s choice in this way.
It’s all about the money. Certainly the cost of delayed hospital discharge is a wake-up call, not to mention widely published figures on costs associated with falls, hip fractures and other aspects of preventable age-related injury. Compared to the negligible costs of grab rails and estimated additional costs to comply with the Lifetime Homes Standard (negligible over the shelf-life and overall value of the home) we can see how easy it could and should be.
Knowing that retrofitting properties simply unfit for accessible living or adaptation is very expensive and difficult – and applies to much of our out-dated UK housing stock - the government and the building industry has a responsibility not to continue making the same mistakes.
A big part of this responsibility is to the public purse. Baroness Stowell, speaking in a June House of Lords debate as Conservative DCLG Minister, agreed that “investment in this area saves money in the longer term”. We agree with her and all the evidence illustrates her point.
As ever, we’re simply not building enough Lifetime Homes. Over the next two decades, the number of pensioner households is expected to rise to 13 million, up 40% from 2008. We can’t solve the issues of housing our ageing population by siloing older people into specialist housing – the answer is far closer and lies at our own (accessible) front doors.
Our analysis of last year’s DCLG consultation on the review of housing standards shows that 43% of builders and developers who responded support the mainstream adoption of accessible standards.
So, what’s the hold-up? Incentivising housebuilders to build accessible homes has been suggested but a default national standard would remove the need for such incentives.
There is a growing consensus on the benefits of accessible Lifetime Homes. Along with Age UK’s findings, the International Longevity Centre UK and Leonard Cheshire have called for the urgent implementation of housing policies that meet the needs of disabled and older people.
Like Habinteg, they are calling for all new homes to be built to the Lifetime Homes Standard with 10% designed to wheelchair accessible standards. This approach has been part of the housing plans of consecutive London mayors since 2004 with such cross-party political will improving many Londoners’ lives.
Surely the government must be listening to this growing force for change? We remain in eager anticipation of the imminent publication of the government’s new housing standards. Let’s just hope it isn’t just another missed opportunity to enforce basic accessibility in our new build housing but secures housing investment in better designed, more sustainable mainstream homes that can meet a range of needs.
I wholly support the call on ministers to make it so.